Zombies in waiting in Sheffield

Prof Vanessa Toulmin with some of her zombies from Fright Night 2011
Prof Vanessa Toulmin with some of her zombies from Fright Night 2011

THE notion that celebrating Halloween is an example of American customs insinuating themselves into British culture is disputed by Prof Vanessa Toulmin, someone who knows a thing or two about cultural traditions.

For the fifth year the director of the National Fairground Archive and head of cultural engagement at the University of Sheffield is involved with Fright Night in Sheffield, now established as Britain’s biggest Halloween carnival.

“Halloween has a big celtic tradition,” says Prof Toulmin. “I am a Lancashire catholic so I was never going to celebrate Guy Fawkes Night. Instead we did things on October 31. My mother dressed up as a witch and went trick or treating and she would put food out for the ghosts which terrified me.

“We also did things like apple-bobbying and casting for loved ones, where you would ripple the water and look for the face of your future love. So I have never thought of it as American.”

She points out that this didn’t just apply to Lancashire and that there is a strong Catholic community in North Yorkshire. “Guy Fawkes was from York so they weren’t going to celebrate his burning there,” she adds.

Prof Toulmin has again secured Arts Council funding for her element of Fright Night taking place in Tudor Square and the Winter Garden..

This year’s theme is voodoo and the locations will be transformed into the Zombie Garden and New Orleans Voodoo square with a troupe of zombies – made up of 40 students from different parts of the world – performing a series of tableaux in the garden and venturing out to dance in the square.

Other entertainment in Tudor Square includes street theatre, including the Shopping Trolley Grannies and 11 Sheffield jazz and blues musicians who have formed Barron Semane and the Mystery Orchestra for the occasion.

Sunday’s event will also feature a giant talking crystal ball, projections on to the Winter Gardens and a motorised ghost ship alongside the traditional attractions of ghost trains, haunted houses, urban dance, the fancy dress catwalk, stilt walkers, craft market, ghost tours and street entertainment.

Prof Toulmin believes that Fright Night serves a special function beyond its place in the calendar.

“Fairs have always had a community element. Everyone gathers at the Nottingham Goose Fair or Hull Fair,” she says. “Sheffield had lost that and Fright Night has replaced it as a large-scale city community event.”

The free event has grown over 12 years to attract up to 40,000 people. Roads will be closed in the city centre so the ‘mass promenade’ can be held between 3.30pm and 8.30pm.

For younger children, ‘Fright Night’s Little Brother’ has become another fixture. It will be staged on The Moor between noon and 3pm.